The French Revolution
by Ian Davidson, Profile, £25
In the popular imagination, the French Revolution was a bloody episode that witnessed France’s dishevelled and impoverished rise up against a hated and spoilt aristocracy, whose heads they proceeded to chop off. It’s a narrative laid down by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and the stories of the Scarlet Pimpernell, and later cemented on stage in Les Misérables. It’s a perception that Ian Davidson seeks to challenge and dismantle.
As every schoolboy learnt, the Revolution’s origins lay in middle-class discontent. It had begun as a bourgeois protest against the inequity of the tax regime, from which the nobility had earned outrageous exemptions under the centralising reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV as a compensation for their loss of powers. Middle-class anger was also fuelled by the fact that they were effectively barred from taking posts in the army and the Church, the two traditional avenues of advancement in France. It was the muscle-flexing bourgeoisie, in the guise of the Third Estate, who forced the hand of the nobility and king. They initially sought mere reform, not revolution or regicide.
Alas, as Edmund Burke predicted, and as history has a nasty habit of reminding us, circumstance and human avarice inevitably caused matters to spiral out of control. Louis XVI was a spineless, vacillating king who had the capacity to alienate even sympathetic factions with his dithering and lack of scruples. The French state was already in financial dire straits, and the emergency measures adopted by revolutionaries only made things worse. France happened to be hit by food shortages, antagonising the sans-culottes, whom Maximilien Robespierre mistakenly hoped to both use and contain.
The fanatics and anti-clerical elements eventually took control. Hence, the enduring image we have today of the Revolution is that of aristocrats in tumbrils being taken to their appointment with Madame Guillotine.
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